Coe leads tributes as Juan Antonio Samaranch passes away

JUAN Antonio Samaranch divided opinion during his long life – and his death yesterday at the age of 89 was greeted by equally polarised reaction.

The former president of the International Olympic Committee died of heart failure in his home town of Barcelona after a short illness. His demise brought about tributes to a man who transformed the Olympic movement during his 21 years in office from 1980, but it also provoked renewed criticism from those who believe his legacy was tarnished by corruption.

Having held office under the fascist regime of General Franco, Samaranch was long accustomed to being criticised for his political associations with the Spanish dictator, who died in 1975 after nearly 40 years in power. Sympathisers suggested that, as secretary of sport during the late 1960s, Samaranch had had no responsibility for the worst excesses of Franco's dictatorship, and may even have done something to mitigate those dark decades.

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His critics, by contrast, said he learned the art of autocracy early, and practised it throughout his long career. Even those critics, however, accepted that Samaranch took over an Olympic movement which was shambolic, helped it weather boycotts and other storms, and made it more powerful than at any other time in its history.

Lord Coe, the chairman of the organising committee for the London 2012 Olympics, said that Samaranch had been an inspiration.

"I have lost a friend, one that moulded my path through sport from my early 20s, and the world has lost an inspirational man," said Coe, who first won Olympic gold in the year that Samaranch became president.

"A man that challenged us all to fight for sport, its primacy and its autonomy, a fight he led fearlessly from the front creating an extraordinary sporting movement that reaches millions of people around the world. He was quite simply the most intuitive leader I have ever met."

Samaranch's successor as IOC president, Jacques Rogge, said he had suffered anguish at the Salt Lake City scandal which led to the expulsion of six IOC members and resignation of four others, with others given sanctions. An investigation found they had benefited from bribes – money, gifts, and college scholarships – during the city's successful bid for the 2002 Winter Games.

"He suffered a lot from all the difficulties that were during his mandate, but he rose up to the challenge," Rogge said. "He was a man of vision, a man of great intelligence, and a shy person who didn't open up very easily. But when you got to know him, you discovered a very generous and rich person."

Samaranch oversaw the introduction of the first women members of the IOC in the 1980s. He was also responsible for setting up the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and involving athletes in the IOC via the IOC Athletes' Commission.

Rogge added: "Before he took the helm, the IOC was a closed, conservative, men-only organisation and he changed all of that."

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Lamine Diack, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, said Samaranch had made the Olympics the "world's most influential sporting event".

Yet for others, not only his past as a fascist official but also the corruption which went on during his term in office, meant that Samaranch was in no way a hero. Andrew Jennings, author of the books The Lords of the Rings and The Great Olympic Swindle, said the Spaniard was complicit in some of the most shameful episodes in Olympic history.

"People talk about Samaranch's legacy – to me his Olympic legacy is corruption and doping," Jennings said. "We know there were positive doping tests in Moscow (in 1980], but these were covered up – the Games were being privatised and he didn't want to put off the sponsors.

"The IOC nearly collapsed in 1999 when the corruption became known about," Jennings continued, referring to the Salt Lake City scandal. "And nearly all those people slung out were people brought in by him."

Sir Craig Reedie, the former British Olympic Association chairman who has been an IOC member since 1994, insisted, however, that Samaranch had led the clean-up of the IOC.

"The good certainly outweighed the bad, if there was any bad at all," he said.

"It was Samaranch who set up the commission to investigate the allegations, it was he who set up the reform commission and it was he who set up the ethics commission.

"Yes, he must have been embarrassed by it, but he then did something about it."